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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis February 7, 2014
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Technology Trends in Public Transit
BY KATHERINE LEWIS, Special to Passenger Transport

Public transportation relies on technological advances. From the invention of the steam locomotive to the development of onboard data systems, technological breakthroughs have revolutionized the way public transportation operates for centuries.

Whether public transit technology adopters are promoting energy innovations, new customer apps, or better payment systems, they must balance the need to stay on the cutting edge with the requisite public funding and consumer adoption.

“Used correctly, technology empowers our customers with information, and that makes us a better product,” said John Flynn, chief information officer, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) “We have to prioritize and we have to select projects that have the most value to our customers and ourselves. We are constantly triaging the number of projects and ideas people have based on our funding and how mature the technology is,” he said in comments that summarize the thinking of several officials contacted for this story.

Virtually all public transportation agencies and businesses are routinely exploring and implementing dozens of technological advances. A sampling of some technology initiatives follows in this article and several others.

When it comes to innovative technology, energy capture rivals any other current initiative in ­public transit.

Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) received a $900,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority to develop an energy capture project in partnership with Viridity Energy, said SEPTA’s Erik Johanson, manager of strategic business planning. The project captures the energy from trains’ dynamic braking in a wayside battery and either sells that energy to the ­electrical grid or uses it to power other SEPTA trains.

“It’s like collected rainwater. We have ‘excess rainwater’—excess energy—that’s being created by braking trains,” explained SEPTA Chief Engineer Andrew Gillespie. “The next time the train needs to accelerate, we de-charge the battery before buying power.”

In January, the weekly revenue SEPTA earned from selling energy ranged from $3,239 to $22,226, depending on the weather and price of electricity. The ­project is capturing two megawatts of power a day on average. Project managers are experimenting with different algorithms for deciding when to enter the electricity market and when to store the energy, depending on the price of energy and the performance impacts. “There’s a balance here between energy reduction and financial revenue-based benefits,” said Johanson.

SEPTA is in the design phase of a second energy-capture project funded by a $1.4 million grant from FTA’s Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction (TIGGER) program. This project will mix a few innovative technologies, possibly a hybrid of a super capacitor and a lithium-ion battery.

“This is the next logical iteration of propulsion technology” after transitioning from friction braking to dynamic and regenerative braking, Johanson said. “We’ve gotten to a stage where it’s cost-effective. That we can make it work within the financial constraints of our authority and still provide energy benefits and financial sustainability is really exciting.”

SEPTA officials would like to continue propagating energy capture projects throughout the system, with an ultimate goal of 10 units. It’s a promising technology for the entire industry, Gillespie said. “As new systems are being built I think you’ll see this technology integrated with them as a standard, built into every substation to take advantage of this opportunity,” he said.

Los Angeles Metro dove into wayside energy capture several years ago, thanks to a $4.5 million federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to implement flywheel technology at the Red Line’s MacArthur Park station. The project is about 12 to 18 months from being operational.

“We’re trying to capture all the waste energy as the train stops and try to actually capture all of that into an on-site regenerative system,” said Cris Liban, deputy executive officer for environmental compliance efforts. “As the train leaves the station, we’ll draw first from that system before we draw energy from the grid.”

A similar project for the agency’s Gold Line would capture energy in a flywheel system as the train slows down around a bend, but instead of being stored, the system would simply hold the energy for the same train or a subsequent one that needs to accelerate. A $2.5 million grant from the South Coast Air Quality Management District helped fund that project, which has a total cost of $3.1 million.

Separately, Los Angeles Metro is exploring flash technology for electric buses, in which the buses would carry smaller batteries that could be recharged more quickly multiple times along the line. Currently, the buses stop for two to five minutes in the middle of a trip to regenerate the energy used up to that point.

“It’s time saved,” Liban said. “The amount of time you charge the smaller battery of the bus is only as long as the bus is picking up passengers.”

New Flyer sees electrification as the natural next step for buses, with multiple possible solutions for battery size, life, and charging strategies. “That’s the largest propulsion change we’re seeing in the industry right now,” said Chris ­Stoddart, vice president of engineering services for New Flyer, based in ­Winnipeg, MB, Canada. (See related story about alternative fuels in this issue.)

Trends in Fare Collection
Several public transit agencies are deploying or exploring technological innovations in fare collection, with benefits accruing both to agencies and riders.

For example, CTA has already seen 80 percent of its riders adopt Ventra, a cashless regional payment system that went live in September, and it expects 100 percent use by the end of the year as the system is refined. Customers currently can use any debit or credit card, and CTA officials hope this year to begin testing near-field communications (NFC) to allow access through a gated system, like a smart card does. NFC is a set of standards for smartphones and similar devices to establish radio communication with each other by bringing them into proximity, usually no more than a few inches.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) is also moving away from card-based fare payment, planning later this year to issue a request for proposals to replace and upgrade its existing farecard and payment system. Currently, MTA issues roughly 150 million magnetic-strip farecards each year and processes 8 million transactions a day.

The agency wants to replace the proprietary card-based system with an open architecture typology that relies on NFC chips in mobile phones and contactless chip credit cards issued by banks. A device reader at the turnstile (or bus) would recognize the customer’s credential and payment processing would be moved to a central location, with more computing power and greater ease of ­maintenance.

“We are waiting, frankly, for the market to catch up to us,” said Michael DeVitto, an MTA vice president and program executive, noting that mobile phone and card issuers are still working out the kinks in a contactless payment system. “We know we need to create a better system for our customers, one that they are expecting from a 21st-century transportation network.”

MTA plans to phase in the new system so customers aren’t stranded at the agency’s 3,500 subway turnstiles or nearly 6,000 buses. Agency officials would like to leverage the existing payments infrastructure as much as possible, although eventually they will likely issue some device for customers who won’t use mobile phones, credit or debit cards, or prepaid cards to pay their fares. MTA is doing its part to speed along mobile phone adoption, offering wireless voice and data access in 36 of its 277 underground subway stations.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) has moved entirely away from cards to mobile ticketing, with a multimodal, multi-agency app called GoPass that riders have already downloaded nearly 100,000 times since its September launch, and which has passed $1.2 million in sales.

Because DART is a pass-oriented, proof of payment (gated) system, it’s easier for conductors and operators to visually verify a pass on someone’s smartphone than to wait for an electronic verification.

“In effect you turn everybody’s individual personal smartphone into their own personal ticket vending machine instead of us having to deploy them,” said David Leininger, DART’s chief financial officer. Leininger noted that Dallas has a 60 percent rate of smartphone use, with disproportionately larger penetration among lower-income populations. “It’s the transit agency that likes tap and go. It’s the customer that likes app and go,” he said. “They like an all-in-one app where you can ticket, do trip planning, get events and offers, and see ‘where’s my bus?’ ”

GoPass cost $500,000 to launch, with approximately another $100,000 to advertise the product, he said. DART has worked with retail partners and event organizers to package transit passes with event tickets or other offers, in addition to helping with crowd control by limiting the number of tickets, such as in the shuttles to the NCAA Final Four game.

“We have had a really successful deployment, but it was really a result of the interest and cooperation of our workforce, our bus operators,” he said. “They became a thousand-man-and-woman sales force.”

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) in St. Petersburg, FL, aims to implement a single smartcard system throughout the Tampa Bay area within a year, said Chief Executive Officer Brad Miller—also chair of APTA’s Bus and Paratransit CEOs Committee—who eventually sees the industry moving to a system like the one at CTA. “Someday soon you will no longer need a separate card or ticket to ride a bus. You’ll be able to use a credit card or your electronic wallet on your phone, or something like that. That’s very exciting,” Miller said.

Communication Technology
At the Interurban Transit Partnership (The Rapid) in Grand Rapids, MI, APTA Chair Peter Varga, its president and chief executive officer, sees technology as vital for public transit to stay relevant to a younger generation and to support a growing economy.

“The younger population focuses on different ways of using information and getting data,” said Varga, who recently deployed a system for customers to get next bus information by text.

The agency is also exploring smartcards and mobile ticketing simultaneously. In the future, vehicle monitoring will be useful to maintenance. And making Wi-Fi available throughout the agency’s BRT (scheduled to launch this summer) is a top priority.

“Young people don’t want to pay for Internet and they’re screaming for Wi-Fi. That’s our growing client base, so we want to make sure they’re happy,” he said. “They’re making different choices for different trips every day.”

Many public transit agencies are ­making Wi-Fi available to riders onboard, including PSTA, which is ­currently testing free Wi-Fi on all of its buses, Miller said. “You can certainly text and ride and you can make your time much more valuable on the bus by doing that. That’s a pretty neat technology,” he said.

CTA recently issued a request for proposals to upgrade to 4G from its current 2G wireless distributed antenna system, which was the first in the U.S. in 2005. The agency already has bus and train tracking systems that cover 100 percent of the transit network, so customers can learn when the next two trains or buses will arrive at their stop by Internet, smartphone, text message, and displays at the stations or bus stops. In the next 18 months, the agency will add digital signs to 150 more bus shelters.

As Global Positioning Satellite technology and sensors are being loaded onto buses and train cars, public transit is increasingly moving toward the fabled “Internet of things,” a concept that describes uniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations in an Internet-like (networked) structure. In the case of public transit, it refers to a network in which machines communicate with each other and self-correct without the need for human ­intervention.

“Inside a state-of-the-art ­Bombardier train, you will get 10 to 15 intelligent systems: entertainment systems, passenger information systems, up to multimedia, publicity, news, weather, diagnostics, and control,” said Mikel Doucet, product director for Bombardier, based in Montreal.

As a result, train operators can instantly correct operational problems, customers can learn when trains are arriving, and predictive maintenance becomes easier, among many other innovations.

For instance, as intelligent railcars feed reams of data into central operations, it becomes easier to predict events with a high degree of likelihood—for example, that a certain door will require maintenance in a certain period of time. In this “integrated ecosystem of technology,” dashboards and tablets replace reams of paper and heavy binders throughout a system, from the operations center to the maintenance shop and garage.

“You get a better profile of the passengers; you know what they want in terms of services and experience,” Doucet said. For instance, an intelligent train could calculate and signal which cars have the most available seats and push that information to boarding passengers’ mobile devices.

Of course, with smart trains and buses producing and gathering huge amounts of data, the challenge for public transit becomes how to use that information strategically as part of an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS). Avail Technologies, based in State College, PA, streamlines the data elements provided to public transit systems to support such data analysis.

“Transit is looking for data to be easier to use and portable,” said Dorsey E. Houtz, Avail’s president and chief executive. “Transit agencies today are looking for an ITS system that can go with them, that’s portable.”

The intelligent buses driving around the streets are really mobile data centers, with 250,000 to 450,000 pieces of equipment worth up to $20,000, feeding back information that can be used for planning, maintenance, operations, and customer information, he said. “It’s all about pushing the data out to the customers today and trying to enhance the rider’s experience,” Houtz added.

By providing QR codes or numbers to text for information about the next bus arriving at a stop, public transit systems can greatly reduce phone calls to customer service while dramatically increasing rider satisfaction. In an intelligent transit system, bus operators receive their route information instantly upon walking into the depot, via a wireless device. They can conduct a pre-shift inspection of the bus with the camera in a mobile phone. Other buses are feeding information about traffic delays into the system, so the route may even shift without a need for human intervention.

Technology Enhances Security
Many public transit systems nationwide use driving simulators to help reduce accidents, train rookie drivers, and provider refresher training for experienced drivers. At StarMetro in Tallahassee, FL, for example, driving simulators help the agency expand its workforce and help new drivers gain the special skills required for bus driving.

“We are surrounded by nothing but rural communities, which makes it a real challenge to hire folks with a commercial driving license,” said Ivan ­Maldonado, StarMetro director.

Not only do the simulators give new hires valuable practice before they hit the road, they can be tailored to give refresher training to experienced drivers, said Rosemary Bosby, safety and training specialist.

StarMetro also implemented motor data terminals for paratransit operators with GPS. “For a small transit system in Florida, we probably could compete with any other transit system in the nation with the quality of work, efficiency of services, and customer service—as well as how our staff feel about themselves,” ­Maldonado said.

As for larger systems, CTA considers next-bus information a safety feature as well as a convenience, allowing customers to stay indoors—protected from the weather or possible criminal activity—until just before a bus arrives. More than 3,500 security cameras at rail stations have contributed to a 40 percent drop in crime in stations and on platforms since 2011. Chicago police officers use the agency’s security footage to identify suspects through facial recognition software. The next phase is to overhaul 1,000 New Flyer buses to allow automatic wireless download of the video when buses enter the depot, said CTA’s Flynn.

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